There isn’t enough good literature about professional wrestling, so I was really pleased when David Shoemaker, aka Grantland’s The Masked Man, announced his intent to expand his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ column into a book.
Those musings on the late greats of wrestling have developed into soliloquies on their lives, their impact, and their meaning; fans of Shoemaker’s writing will be very happy with this.
It’ll also be enjoyed by people who share Shoemaker’s background in wrestling fandom – largely NWA/WCW-dominated.
However, it gave me pause for thought in several places – and made me stop reading repeatedly with frustration and anger.
I would have liked to have seen “a history” with more extensive research. Though Shoemaker does refer to some biographies of wrestlers, he also refers to Wikipedia relatively often. If he’d managed to draw on some more recent autobiographies, perhaps he wouldn’t be speculating that Chris Kanyon was “almost certainly gay”, or that Shawn Michaels was in on the Montreal plan (the Hart accounts still aren’t sure about that).
I also had problems with some of the discussions of gender and sexuality in wrestling. Even though WWE keep reminding us that a large proportion of its viewership is female (around a third – which you certainly wouldn’t think simply from watching its product), there is always the assumption (reflected by Shoemaker throughout) that wrestling fans are male. He speculates on why Miss Elizabeth was such an important figure, and talks at great length about “our” feelings for her, declaring her “everything we ever wanted in a woman”. The assumption of his readers’ gender and sexuality throughout is jarring – though perhaps only noticeable to a reader who isn’t male and straight. Regardless, a book purporting in its blurb to be “a history of pro wrestling” should perhaps be considering its narrative bias.
That’s not the only instance, though. The discussion of the Fabulous Moolah’s feud with Wendi Richter acknowledges that it was perhaps odd for women’s wrestling to get such a high profile as WWE tended then (as now) to ignore its female talent. Yet instead of interrogating this or even offering an explanation, it’s dismissed with a literal “whatever”.
Shoemaker clearly wasn’t a great fan of Chris Kanyon, but to brush aside the serious allegations that he made about homophobia in professional wrestling with the simple footnote that “[s]ome of McMahon’s top lieutenants…have purportedly been gay” ignores the problem that none of these people have been openly gay. The chapter seems to reflect the WWE party line, that Kanyon left the company for business reasons and nobody cared about his sexuality.
To his credit, he acknowledges the abuse inflicted on Miss Elizabeth on Randy Savage due to his paranoiac tendencies – but in storyline, not so much in real life.
And to try to explain Chris Benoit’s absence from WWE history by comparing him to Eddie Guerrero and concluding, “The world wants to pretend [he] never lived because of the way he died,” is simply offensive. The way Benoit died, as Shoemaker does deftly show with his pen portraits of other stars, is nothing new in wrestling. Pain, drug abuse, depression, loneliness, futility combine to push people over the edge, and they take their own lives. If Benoit had done this, he would not have been redacted from professional wrestling canon.
No. The world wants to pretend Benoit never lived because of the way his wife and son died. In this distorted world of professional wrestling, which Shoemaker admits is steeped in misogyny, off-stage violence and bullying, Benoit’s actions finally cross a line. I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that should be welcomed.
I don’t particularly want the comments here to descend into a discussion about Benoit, but would be really interested in your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it.